An Exploration of Watercolours

Posted by Sarah Jane Humphrey on

Using Watercolours

Because watercolours are a pure pigment of colour and watersoluble, in a traditional sense artists are taught to use quantities of water to vary the translucency of colour and to lighten. As opposed to using a white in your palette mixing. This gentle emergence of tone through water and paint is a true skill and takes much thought and consideration.

Some of the finest watercolourists can produce delicate paintings and are somewhat purists in their careful application of colour. Davys Grey is a lovely colour to build a delicate shadow, without the depth of Paynes Grey which is darker. Both colours are good options to have in your kit when building up a collection of paints. 

One must proceed with utter caution when using a larger selection of colours to create a realistic artwork that your palette doesn’t become muddied. To clarify this as a term ‘muddied’ is when the wrong colours have been mixed together and cause a dull tone. The loss of vibrancy across a painting from this can look lifeless, and in using water soluble paints can often be tricky to rectify. 

There are several ways to avoid this; Try not to become lazy with cleaning your palette or adding new paint to already mixed muddy colours. You really are best to begin again with a clean area in your palette or if that is not possible to wash it out and start again. It would be preferable not to wash a palette out mid painting as sometimes it can be difficult to try and produce accurate colour matching again. Some artists to avoid this risk will make notes in their sketchbooks or indeed to the outer edges of their artworks the colours they have used to create a particular tone of paint. Others will find with experience this isn’t necessary and can recreate new colours by eye. Whatever your strategy mixing up smaller amounts of paint in your palette so you therefore use less of an area may prove helpful, or have a spare to hand.

Another problem artists may experience from colours becoming dull is when you add white to the mix. Of course this could help create the exact desired effect depending on your subject. However a handy point to bear in mind, when trying to lighten colours. This can easily be avoided by using lighter colours of paint that have been premixed. It is preferable to mix your own colours, rather than applying straight from the tube.

Some pale colours to try:

Pale Cadmium Yellow

Naples Yellow

Flesh Tint

Sap Green

Raw Umber



Cerulean Blue

Warm Grey

One last point that can at times dull your tones is mixing from purely primary colours. Whilst it can be pricey to buy large sets of paint a small set of 12 tubes will take you a fair way, and you can always add to these over time. Buying a set is a good way to start out rather than buying individual tubes which can be pricey. It is advisable to buy the ‘designers’ or ‘artists’ tubes of paint, as they will provide you with a higher quality of paint. Unfortunately as with most things in life lesser quality will only take you so far. Yes you will still be able to paint, and yes they will still perform in a similar way, but as your skills and experience gains pace, you may observe that the pigments don’t quite mix as well, and the colours are not as pure. Something else to consider is that colours can vary from one brand to another. So if you find a particular tube of colour that really seems to work for you, it may be worth trying out other paints in that range.

A seperate word of advice: it is of best practice to try not to work over your illustration, so getting into the habit of working from top to bottom or left to right can be a handy tip, to avoid the warmth of your hand smudging over your work. Sometimes you will find working in this manner isn’t conducive to the way in which you want to execute a particular illustration. Particularly, if you are working on a study over an annual period to record all of the phases of plant growth. In that case it would be advisable to work with a piece of clean white paper under your hand. 

Colour Pencils

As well as watercolour paint, colour pencils are quite favoured amongst Botanical Illustrators, and for those who shy away from paint this is an excellent way to experiment with colour and realism. Colour pencils are also very easy to control, less so than some feel of using paint. They can be used in a slightly different way, in the respect of building up layers of colour. 

With good quality pencils you can build up many layers of colour. This allows you to create beautiful, realistic qualities to your artwork. For example, with the use of complementary colours feel free to experiment in your sketchbooks, with different layers of colour. The beauty of colour pencil crayons, is also that you can work from light to dark and if you use your dark colours sensitively with little pressure you can also work from dark to light. Give yourself time to experiment and practice in your sketchbook. Remembering this is a place to try out different things and not to feel any pressure if they don’t work out. 

Although perhaps not perfect in the most obvious sense, you can use colour extremely delicately and almost invisibly at first sight to enhance your subjects. We all view colour differently, some of us will look in the most minute detail and notice a slight discolouration on a subject whereas others will view it initially in more block values of tone. The trick is to observe closely as possible, even using a magnifying glass if it helps. The thinnest colour of Lilac or a Burnt Sienna can work beautifully under the edges of a leaf, a seed or around the outer edges of a petal. The Lilac is sometimes the reflection that a blue sky will make and the Burnt Sienna or even a Yellow Ochre will often be observed on edges of plants as they deteriorate, or just from natural weathering.

Have fun with your colours, and enjoy your observations. Understanding complementary colours can be really useful for dulling down tones. It is also an awful lot easier to have a broad collection of pencil colours and tones. The Irotjen series from Tom Bow, offer the most wonderful selection of colours for natural studies. Some helpful colours in the Volumes 5 (Deep Tone) and 9 (Dull Tone) which are great to create a terrific sense of contrast and shadow in your illustration also good for rich coloured subjects. 

An experiment you may like to try is working from dark to light. You can layer up shades in a mid tone, for example starting with a deeper red very lightly pressing the pencil lead into the paper, then moving onto a lighter red, then in turn orange and so on. This is a good example of building up an area of shadow. You can then at the lightest point use perhaps a flesh tone or pale rose pink, working quite hard now into the surface which will blend in all the previous colours. This technique makes a great base to the main part of your illustration to which you can later incorporate further detail.

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